We’ve gushed about Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries a few times here on ye olde Mythcreants, but did you know she’s written other books as well? One such book is The Cloud Roads, the first novel of the Raksura series. While Murderbot’s worldbuilding is fairly minimal and relies heavily on established space-opera tropes, Cloud Roads is a high-fantasy story that boldly strikes out on its own, crafting a world of fresh and unique ideas! Unfortunately, most of those ideas are very bad, and a few of them are straight-up toxic.
Content Notice: Discussion of racism, sexism, and sexual violence in fiction.
But wait – it’s not all bad, I promise! Wells is a skilled writer, and she’s more than capable of creating a well-built world for us to explore. She just doesn’t do that very often in this book.
Two things immediately strike you from the first page of The Cloud Roads. First: this protagonist is clearly a test run for Murderbot, complete with the dry observations and being surrounded by less-capable people who mistreat him.* Second: wow, these flying islands are cool!
Drifting through the sky are big chunks of rock and soil, most of them large enough to support their own ecosystems, and they add a lot to the story in very little time. For characters who can’t fly, the islands are pure mystery: What’s up there, and could it be dangerous? For characters who can fly, they’re a great opportunity to explore. Most of the important characters in The Cloud Roads have wings, so Wells goes for the second option, but it would have worked either way. That’s how cool the flying islands are.
The islands give our heroes the chance to explore new biomes without weeks of travel time, since the exploration comes to them instead! The local area might be temperate woodlands, but the islands can be rain forest, snowy tundra, or even desert. Plus, the islands have their own animal life, which can include anything from adorable furballs to scary monsters.
That’s all pretty cool already, but Wells also uses the islands to give her world a sense of history, as many of them bear ancient ruins from the distant past. These ruins aren’t the focus of Cloud Roads’ plot,* but they still help avoid the feeling that this world only came into existence a few minutes before the opening sentence. They also hint at a great cataclysm, which Wells could certainly do more with in later books if she chooses.
As a final bonus, the flying islands also allow the setting to have airships. Reading the story, I actually wondered if there was a way to harness whatever force keeps the islands aloft, and it turns out there is! By harvesting chunks of a special stone from within the islands, at least one group of merchants and traders is able to lift its ships skyward. This is cool because it’s a natural extension of existing setting elements, and also because I love airships. Put airships in your story if you want me to say something positive about the worldbuilding.
The flying islands are, if you’ll pardon the pun, a major high point for the setting, but the regular ground is cool too! Lots of stories feature monster attacks, but it’s rare to see a world that seems like it could support a large monster population. One of the first things humans* do when they populate an area is clear out the megafauna, either deliberately or as an unintended side effect. It’s difficult to have a stable system of agriculture if dire tigers keep rampaging through the fields.
In the early chapters at least, The Cloud Roads bucks that trend. We see a world made up of small, isolated communities rather than densely populated cities or centralized kingdoms. While we hear of great empires that existed in the past, they all seem to have fallen by the time the story starts. The people of this world have little contact with each other, and travel is rare. The protagonist has been to quite a few places, but unlike most, he can fly.
That means we have a lot of wilderness for hostile fauna to exist in, and it’s not just terrestrial predators. Since the important characters can fly, we also need flying creatures for them to tangle with. In later books, ocean critters also get in on the action. This all contributes to the feeling that travel is dangerous rather than acting as a simple exercise in expositing about new terrain features. Tension goes up whenever the characters need to leave town, and it also helps the book stand out from other fantasy entries where the monsters appear to spring fully formed from the ether.
Initially, protagonist Moon is the only character who can fly, but that’s only because he hasn’t met others of his kind yet. That doesn’t last long, though: we soon find out that Moon’s species is called the Raksura, and they’re a bit like humanoid dragons. They have colorful scales, powerful wings, deadly claws, and dangerous teeth. Just about the only thing they’re missing is a breath weapon. At least some of them also keep growing throughout their lifespan, and since they live a long time, they can get very large indeed. This evokes images of ever-growing crocodiles, even though real-life crocodiles don’t do that.
Visually, the Raksura have a wide variety of scale colors, and Wells’s description makes them sound truly beautiful. They also have unique body language, flaring their spines and hissing to show displeasure. I’m sure they also have body language to demonstrate positive emotions, but since these books are full of drama, we don’t see that as often.
Beyond their appearance, Wells does a lot of work showing us how the Raksura’s physical characteristics affect their behavior. They have little use for weapons or cutting tools, since their claws will serve for all but the most difficult tasks and their scales serve as excellent armor. They have a lot of leisure time, as they don’t need many of the industries that sustain a human population. Nor do they need much agriculture, as their flight makes it very easy for them to hunt and catch terrestrial prey. That said, they also have very complex social rules when it comes to who’s in charge, which Wells takes full advantage of to create the drama I mentioned earlier.
As most of the story’s important characters are Raksura, it’s good that they’re such an interesting species. It adds novelty early in the story and lets readers build attachment that quickly becomes critical once we encounter what else this story’s worldbuilding has in store for us.
Unfortunately, that’s about it for the positives, and we’re just getting started. The Cloud Roads isn’t even that long by epic fantasy standards,* but it never stops introducing new world elements, so let’s get to it.
The Raksura are very well fleshed out with lots of novelty and interesting traits, but they aren’t the only species* in this novel. Everyone else is referred to as “groundlings” because they can’t fly, and there sure are a lot of them. By the end of The Cloud Roads, we’ve met at least four different groundling species, and we’ve heard about many more.
Technically, none of these are humans, which don’t seem to exist at all in this world. I say “technically” because, other than a few cosmetic details, they’re all basically humans: two arms, two legs, a pair of grasping hands, etc. While the Raksura are flitting around on their great wings and enjoying the benefits of sharp claws, every groundling we meet has exactly the same abilities a human has. Raksura are also stronger and faster than groundlings, just to rub it in.
This has a few problems, the most notable of which is that the groundlings all blur together. I can describe most of the Raksura protagonists from memory, but I couldn’t tell you what any of the groundlings they meet look like. Heck, I can’t even be sure how many different types are in the story. I think it was four, but they’re all essentially the same compared to the Raksura.
The worldbuilding also feels terribly lopsided. The Raksura have all these abilities that take them beyond what humans are capable of, and groundlings get nothing. Near the end, we finally meet another species that can also fly, but they don’t have anything to match the Raksura’s many other abilities. It makes you feel bad for the groundlings and also question why the world is even like this. Why does one sapient species get all the toys, while the others get nothing? A made-up world can technically have whatever rules the author desires, but that doesn’t make it feel right. In the story’s many confrontations between Raksura and groundlings, our heroes come across as overpowered bullies. I ended up cheering for the groundlings even though they’re supposed to be wrong!
There’s an important aspect of the Raksura that I haven’t covered yet: they’re also shapeshifters! That might sound like yet another ability on top of all the others they already have, but it could also be a fun way of adding more novelty. So, what do they shapeshift into? Less powerful versions of themselves.
To be more specific, the Raksura all have what they call a “groundling form.” It’s not super clear what this form looks like, but it’s still humanoid. When in this form, the Raksura lose their wings, claws, teeth, armored scales, and heightened physical abilities like strength and speed. They become, in effect, baseline humans just like all the other groundlings.
This is easily the most boring type of shapeshifting I have ever seen in a published novel, and also the most pointless. When you give someone shapeshifting powers, the expectation is that they have reasons to be in both forms. Werewolves, for example, might use their wolf form for combat, tracking, or speed, while they use their human forms when they need to drive a car or buy groceries. Even werewolves that shift into humanoid-wolf hybrids usually don’t want to stay in wolf form all the time, as that’s when they have to deal with bestial bloodlust.
By contrast, there’s almost nothing that the Raksura can do in their groundling form but not in their flying form. The only utility their groundling form has is letting them blend in with other groundlings, something almost no Raksura ever has to do. At this point, you have to ask why the Raksura don’t stay in their flying form all the time. The only explanation we’re given is that their groundling form doesn’t need to eat as often, but the Raksura are so good at hunting that this never matters.
We’ve already covered the Raksura’s many physical abilities, which make them seem really overpowered compared to the other species in Wells’s world. Unfortunately, that is nothing compared to the seemingly endless list of magical powers that Raksuran wizards have. They’re called “mentors,” and here’s the best list I could make of their various powers:
- Crafting magic lamps and magic heaters
- Raising the potency of poisons and medicine
- Healing others
- Detecting mind control
- Predicting the future
You might be wondering why they’re called mentors when none of their powers relate to teaching. I think it’s because future predictions impart knowledge, but since that’s only one of many abilities, the connection is thin. This is already a wild list of powers in what’s otherwise a very low-magic world, and then we meet some evil mentors who take it even further. In addition to the powers above, they have remote viewing and can force Raksura into their weaker form. Also, if they use their remote viewing on you for too long, you get bad luck.
This list of powers feels like it was generated by pulling random numbers out of a hat. If mentors can do all that, can they also control birds? Maybe they turn lead into gold or start fires with their minds. It’s all equally likely, given the complete lack of theming, and made worse by the piecemeal way Wells introduces mentor powers, stringing them out until it feels like new powers could just keep being added forever. In a particularly bad scene, there’s a big conflict over the suspicion that the bad guys may have used mind control on one of the heroes, and this conflict is solved by a mentor suddenly revealing that they can actually detect mind control. Great.
Future predictions, remote vision, and bad luck are also just bad powers to give anyone in your story, hero or villain. If the predictions actually worked, there would never be any tension, as the characters could just use magic to see what the best path is. To deal with this, Wells has predictions mysteriously fail until she needs the characters to do something they otherwise wouldn’t, and then the predictions work again. The remote vision has a similar problem, as the story has to keep justifying why the bad guys can see just enough to enact their convoluted plan but not enough to know a much simpler plan would work. The bad luck is just confusing, as it’s blamed for a bunch of bad things happening and then mysteriously goes away when it’s time for the heroes to start winning.
Believe it or not, there’s actually one species in this setting with powers to match the Raksura. These are the Fell, and they’re our big villains. They can do almost everything the Raksura can do, which is good. It would be a pretty short story otherwise.* Unfortunately, the Fell are an inherently evil species, a trope I really thought high fantasy was growing out of.
The Fell aren’t just a group that does bad things. The book is very clear that being evil is in their nature. They’re compared to parasites: feeding off of others and never creating anything for themselves. Except in this case, “feeding” means that they literally eat their enemies. They also constantly stink, which is about the most visceral way to signal that they’re bad.
We’ve explained the problem with this trope before, but the short version is that when stories cast an entire species or race as evil, it reinforces real-life ideas about how certain people are inherently bad. It’s also just hard to believe. The Fell are so cartoonishly destructive that it’s difficult to see how they could have evolved that way, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn in later books that an evil god made them that way just because.
On the bright side, the Fell aren’t obviously coded as people of color the way orcs often are, so in that way, they aren’t quite as bad as what Tolkien got up to.* But on the less bright side, their big evil plan is that they want to “breed” with the Raksura to produce powerful offspring.
Oh boy. So now we have an evil species whose main goal is to rape the good guys. I know I said the Fell aren’t obviously POC coded, but that sounds an awful lot like what white supremacists say about anyone with darker skin than them. It also casts the heroes as not just trying to stop rape, but also being disgusted at the idea of any mixing between Fell and Raksura. Gotta keep the bloodlines pure, I guess!
Magical Caste Systems
In the midst of harshing on the Fell, we shouldn’t forget that the Raksura are also loaded with toxic tropes. One of those is their magically enforced caste system. You see, until now I’ve only been describing one type of Raksura called Aeriat.* There’s a second type called Arbora, and they form the Raksura’s labor class. The Aeriat are always the leaders, while the Arbora do the work.
That might sound like an unjust system ripe for overthrow, but instead the book assures us it’s a good system that the Arbora are very happy with. The Arbora don’t have wings, you see, so they’re just less capable than the Aeriat and need their protection. The narration even tries to tell us that it’s the Arbora who are really in charge since the Aeriat don’t want to upset them.
That’s a really weird claim to make, and the book never shows us any evidence that it’s true. The only Arbora ever involved in decision-making are mentors, whom apparently only Arbora can be. I’m guessing Wells threw that in as a consolation prize for being so much less capable than the Aeriat, but it doesn’t help. The mentors seem to have as much in common with other Arbora as Gandalf does with regular humans.*
Even if we saw real evidence that the Arbora’s opinion mattered to the Aeriat at all, this would still be a toxic trope because that’s not how power and privilege actually work. The only way for less-privileged groups to ensure equitable treatment is for them to have a say in the decision-making process, be it through labor organizing, voting rights, or legal representation. Relying on the kind whims of those in power is a losing game every time.
Don’t worry, the Aeriat also suffer from caste system problems, though not to the same degree. Among these super-candied flyers, queens and consorts are of the highest rank, with warriors below them. The higher-ranked Aeriat are bigger and more powerful, with queens even having mind-control powers that only work on other Raksura. That sounds pretty horrific, but it’s portrayed as totally fine and the way things should be. In fact, one of the antagonistic Raksura is specifically painted as being bad for acting like a consort when he’s really just a warrior. What a scamp – he should know his place as determined by the genetic lottery of birth!
Magical Gender Essentialism
One positive aspect of The Cloud Roads is that the Raksura are fairly open to queer and polyamorous relationships. We even learn that Moon is bisexual, and no one acts like that’s weird. Excellent, more spec fic like this, please.
Unfortunately, despite those good points, the Raksura still manage to have rigid gender roles in one area: queens and consorts. Queens are in charge, and they’re always female. Consorts are always male, and it’s their job to give the queens babies. To be clear, “queen” and “consort” aren’t job titles; they’re special types of Raksura who also get the leadership roles by default.
Tying these roles to gender is really irritating, as it makes adding trans or nonbinary characters difficult. Theoretically, we could imagine a Raksuran group that ties those roles specifically to reproductive ability rather than gender, but in practice that gets very messy. As long as the one having babies is called a “queen,” the gender binary will always feel baked in.
We also have a kind of straw matriarchy here, as consorts are treated like property of their attached queen. It’s fine if the consort has other relationships on the side, but they’d better be ready to have kids when the queen wants to or there’ll be heck to pay. The queens even fight over who gets which consort, with the consorts having no say in the matter. This is especially weird considering that the protagonist himself is a consort, and when two queens fight over him, he doesn’t seem particularly worried. Fortunately, the queen he likes is victorious, or things would have been awkward.
You might recognize this as a reversal of the common trope where two or more men fight over a woman. Flipping the genders doesn’t make the idea any better, and hardwiring it into the world’s speculative aspects removes any chance to use it for social commentary. All we’re left with is a fantasy species that uses violence to decide who has sex with whom, and they’re the good guys!
Thankfully, we can now move away from the bigotry issues and engage in my favorite pastime: complaining about economic and military implications! Earlier, I praised The Cloud Roads for the way it portrays a world of isolated communities, but it’s not long before we learn that’s not actually true. While the story starts in an isolated community, the world is full of merchant caravans, trade fleets, and densely populated cities. We encounter not one but two city-states that make their money from trade. The world is very interconnected, it seems.
This raises a whole host of problems. It’s difficult to imagine such flourishing trade networks existing in a world where monsters are ready to eat you the moment you step outside. Either someone would take steps to cull the monster population, or trade would be too risky. A similar problem emerges in the plot. At the start of the story, Moon doesn’t know anything about his people, not even that they’re called Raksura. But later, we discover that the Raksura are fairly common, and that plenty of groundlings know about them. In years of searching, how did Moon never meet anyone who had heard of his people?
That’s all small potatoes compared to the Fell, though. In some chapters, they act like roving bandits, appearing to raid and then vanishing again. But in others, they’re more like a conquering army, literally consuming all in their path. Given that, it’s very weird that none of the people we meet, groundlings or Raksura, seem interested in fighting them. There’s no attempt to build a united front or to secure defensive alliances. Heck, no one in the story is even preparing for war, despite the Fell being right next door.
Of course, a common enemy doesn’t guarantee that disparate groups will band together, but it’s extremely weird that no one is even trying. It feels like no one in this setting has object permanence when it comes to the Fell. The Fell are scary and dangerous when they appear, but the moment they’re out of sight, everyone just goes back to what they were doing.
The world of Cloud Roads is extremely complex, meaning it’s more important than ever to have an intuitive set of terminology. Unfortunately, we get the exact opposite. The terminology in this book is so bad, I sometimes wonder if it’s confusing on purpose.
For example, non-Raksura are called “groundlings,” which seems to make sense since they can’t fly. But Arbora can’t fly either, and they make up more than half of the Raksura’s numbers. Are they also groundlings? What really separates the Raksura from everyone else is their shapeshifting, but the terminology doesn’t reflect that.
That’s just the tip of the confusion iceberg. We’re told that most Aeriat are “warriors” and their job is to protect the colony, but there’s also a group of Arbora called “soldiers” who do… something, I assume. The characters constantly talk about certain powers that are able to “keep them from shifting,” when what they really mean is force them into their weaker form.
But hey, it’s not just the Raksura who have bewildering names for things; the Fell do it too! There are multiple types of Fell, but the two we care about are the major kethel and the minor dakti. The “major” and “minor” adjectives are a bit too clinical for my tastes, more like something you’d find in a monster manual than in a living world, but that’s a small gripe. More important is that such a naming convention leads you to expect that there are also minor kethel and major dakti.
There are not. At least, not anywhere I could find. What I could find were a lot of instances where kethel and dakti were referred to without any adjective. Does that mean those ones are different types of Fell, or are they the same kinds with their names shortened? Why do they even have the adjective if there’s only one kind of each? There’s more I could show you, but I think the point is clear by now: this book takes an already confusing situation and makes it worse with truly bizarre terminology.
What We Can Learn
The Cloud Roads doesn’t have the worst worldbuilding mistakes of all the novels I’ve critiqued,* but it does have the most, even though it’s far from the longest. That’s just what happens when so much of the book is devoted to introducing new setting elements. I suppose that’s a lesson in itself: if you build more world than you can handle, things won’t go well.
Unorthodox Terrain Is Novel
As cathartic as it was to finally vent my spleen about The Cloud Roads and its many problems, I still really enjoyed the many unusual locations featured in this book and the rest of the series. Flying islands are the stand-out example, but we also see things like an entire city built on a slowly turning stone and a colony of sapient bees.
I’m not saying every fantasy novel has to get weird with its locations, but doing so will help you stand out. Veteran fantasy readers have seen a lot of towering forests and snowy mountains. It will help even more if you explore the implications of unusual terrain. The Cloud Roads does this once, when Wells uses flying islands to explain how airships work, but the rest of the setting exists mostly as window dressing.
So many of Cloud Roads’ problems stem from Wells adding new setting elements when she really should have made do with what she already had. Sometimes, this is a case of recursive worldbuilding. There’s no real reason for the Arbora to exist, except that Wells liked the idea of two separate species combining to form the Raksura, something that gets exposited near the end.
We also have several cases of extraneous worldbuilding used to prop up weak plots. The Raksuran shapeshifting feels exceptionally pointless, but it’s needed at the beginning so that there can be a plot of Moon hiding who he is among groundlings. Likewise, the incredibly vague future-sight and scrying powers exist so that there’s an excuse for the villains to know where Moon will be years in advance.
If you ever find yourself adding something big and flashy to the setting because you need it to make the plot work, chances are the plot itself needs revision. What this book needed was a conflict that would draw Moon and the villains together, not something that depended on the bad guys having knowledge of the future.
Likewise, worldbuilding elements should support each other. If you find yourself adding new stuff that dilutes your theme, chances are it should be axed. The Raksura work well as a dragon-like species whose most prominent trait is flight. Adding a second type of Raksura who don’t even have wings increases complexity without making the world any deeper.
Don’t Magically Enforce Bigotry
There is a place in speculative fiction for stories about discriminatory social rules. It’s not nearly as large a place as some authors think, but if you’re going to comment on the evils of bigotry, you often need some bigotry in the story. That said, there’s almost never a reason to bake that bigotry into the rules of your world.
This may be a shocking statement, but in real life, caste systems and rigid gender roles are bad. Even so, lots of people love them, because some people just can’t let go of bad ideas. When such discrimination is magically enforced, it validates the people who would love to see something similar in the real world. For the rest of us, it’s just unpleasant.
I do not believe this was the author’s intent. Everything I know about Martha Wells suggests she’s fairly progressive. My best guess is that she was modeling the Raksura off eusocial insects like ants and bees. But, as we’re so fond of saying, the author’s intent is far less important than what they actually wrote. It’s also a bad parallel, since insect queens don’t actually issue commands to the rest of the colony; they’re just instinct-driven egg factories.
Decide What Kind of World You Want
The final lesson we can draw from The Cloud Roads is that it’s important to know what you want from your world. Wells seems to have a lot of contradictory ideas about her setting. Is the land wild and sparsely populated or settled and urban? Are the Fell roving marauders or a conquering army? Are the Raksura rare and hidden, or do they fly around all over the place?
Granted, avoiding these contradictions is easier said than done. There are so many possibilities when you first sit down to build your world; it’s really difficult to pick only the ones that work together. You might want a realistic and gritty industrial setting, with technology drawn directly from real life, but also giant mechs are very cool. What harm could it do to give the protagonist a steampunk battlesuit?
A lot, as it turns out. If readers are constantly wondering why the world is the way it is, they won’t have a lot of attention left for the actual story. You’ll also lose most of the benefits you were after in the first place. A realistic, low-magic, industrial setting is great for making readers empathize with the plight of mistreated workers. But if you add an implausibly high-tech battlesuit, the realism disappears and the story doesn’t hit as hard.
The good news is that Martha Wells herself seems to have learned a few lessons from the Raksura books, as few of the problems from The Cloud Roads appear in the later Murderbot Diaries. She still has a few terminology issues, like “bot” sometimes being a catchall term for robots and sometimes indicating a specific type of bot, but otherwise her worldbuilding is much better. Here’s hoping it stays that way, ’cause if I have to read about Murderbot shapeshifting into a less-cool robot, I’m gonna flip a table.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?